Will Eisner: Two Autobiographic Works

Donny reviews two works by Will Eisner, winner of the Will Eisner Award.

The Dreamer, 1986
To the Heart of the Storm, 1991

Will Eisner

Will Eisner was basically the Orson Welles of comic books (only he was a much better businessman than poor Orson). He was a young wunderkind and an auteur visionary back when comic books first appeared during the Great Depression. He was the first person (after, perhaps, newspaper strip artist Winsor McCay a generation before) who thought comics could be an artistic, literary medium suitable for serious, intelligent grown-ups. He spent the fifties and sixties doing educational comics and short comics for the Army’s P*S magazine, but in ’78 he starts coming out with a series of graphic novels (a term he invented) that proved that even decades on he was still one of the best storytellers in the medium. This guy produced his first weekly comic strip in 1935 and published his last graphic novel in 2005 – what a career!

To the Heart of the Storm came out in 1991; it was like his seventh graphic novel. He said he wanted to write a book about the various origins and manifestations of prejudice and thought the most interesting way to do it would be through his own experiences; then, he says, he got halfway into it and realized that he was writing a memoir.

The frame story is simply Willie, at age 25, having been drafted into the Army, riding on a troop train to boot camp. He stares out the window and the things he sees spark flashbacks to his childhood. It’s a great narrative device. He sees some guys loading a moving truck, and it causes him to flashback to when his family moved to a new neighborhood in the Bronx where he was bullied for being a Jew – a children’s microcosm of the causes of the war Willie is now being sent to fight. Passing a harbor sparks a second flashback: this time of a childhood girlfriend’s father, a harbormaster, who was a raving socialist and goes on about the spreading “storm” in Europe. “In the end,” he rants, “the communists and the Nazis will fight for power and control of Germany. It will be a bloody fight!” His harbor gets torched by American Nazi sympathizers.

With each flashback, Eisner uses a calendar on the wall or a newspaper date and headline to orient you. The story is told out of order, jumping forward and back as different scenes out the window spark different scenes in Willie’s head, playing variations on themes of ethnic prejudice. When he sees a boy selling newspapers he recalls his first job as a paper boy when, one day, two of the guys delivering the papers to him, an Italian and an Irishman, got into a bloody brawl. “Y’little Wop bastard… don’t muscle me!” “Shit on you, Irish!”

Willie’s early attempts at romance are also marred by bigotry. His first girlfriend is a German girl whose parents wouldn’t let her date “a Mic or a Wop.” When she find out Willie is Jewish she is mortified and humiliated.

Ethnic prejudice is a theme that runs through much of Eisner’s later work (including The Name of the Game, Fagan the Jew, and The Plot). The focus is always on anti-Semitism, but he also shows how different groups of Jews were prejudiced about one-another (as when Willie’s mother dismisses German Jews as stuck-up snobs). The work is dark, but I find his work optimistic because it shows clear progress in society. While things are far from perfect in America today (especially for African and Latino Americans), over-all things are better now than when Eisner was growing-up in the ‘20’s and society was completely saturated with bigotry… like when his Uncle Mike had to convert to Christianity so that he could go to med school. So there is progress!

Willie seems to find a bright spot with a German boy named Buck. Initially they are enemies and brawl in the street, but Buck becomes his best friend and they spend a lot of their time building a sailboat together.

Another theme that runs through Storm is Willie’s father’s never-ending failed business attempts. His dad, an artist turned failed businessman, is a dreamer. Willie takes after him, but there are important differences between the two dreamers. His dad (who only got married to avoid the draft in 1914) is irresponsible. He always runs from trouble and always compromises. He’s an appeaser. In one key moment, he and Willie go out painting together and get caught in the rain. As they run for shelter his father explains, “We are on a journey… Life is a trip from here to there.”

“Where is ‘there,’ Pop?”

“There is where the thunder is far away!”

Cut back to G.I. Willie on a troop train riding into the heart of the storm.

Will Eisner 2

Although The Dreamer could chronologically fit perfectly inside Storm (slipped neatly in between pages 188 and 189, bridging the jump between Willie’s adolescence and adulthood) it is very different in tone and narrative style. This short piece (just 50 pages) is Eisner’s nostalgic love letter to the birth of the comic book industry told from his first-hand point of view – as well as a depiction of the timeless conflict between dreamers and realists, art vs. business. The clear inspiration behind Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this is a semi-autobiographic work. Eisner changed names and shuffled some dates around, but if you go to www.hoboes.com/comics/dreamer/ you will find useful annotations compiled by Jerry Stratton that translate who is who. (“Billy Eyron” is Willie Eisner, Bob Kane becomes “Ken Corn,” Harry Donenfield is “Donny Harrifield,” etc.). Here, I’m going to use the real names to summarize how the comic book industry grew up around Eisner between 1936 and 1940. The Dreamer tells this story while throwing in some fun, personal anecdotes (like the time Willie accidentally slept with a prostitute and Jerry Iger had to pay her off).

In the early 1930’s some publishers started collecting and re-printing Sunday comic strips: Mutt and Jeff, Buster Brown, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Popeye, and Little Orphan Annie. They were used as give-always for promotional gigs for gas stations, toy stores or soap companies. In ’34, Max Gaines produced Famous Funnies, the first collection of original comics sold on the newsstand for 10 cents, and in the middle of the Depression, the first issue sold out. Eisner was then 17 and working in a print shop. He recounts a story in The Dreamer where he was fired after refusing to draw pornographic Taiwan Bibles for the mob. In 1936, demand for original comic book material was growing. With $30 starting capitol, Eisner teamed-up with editor Jerry Iger to form the Eisner & Iger Studio.

There’s no doubting Eisner’s talent, but he was also the right guy in the right place at the right time. Pulp magazines and dime novels were going out of business and the printers and publishers were looking for something else to do. Eisner saw an opportunity. The pulps had started using comics as filler, but (as Eisner recounts in the documentary Portrait of a Sequential Artist) there were only about forty comic strips being produced in the whole country. Printing presses were sitting idle. This allowed Eisner & Iger to quickly dominate the emerging market.

Two of the young kids who came to Eisner & Iger to try and sell their work were Siegel and Shuster. Eisner turned down their “Superman” idea because their work was still too primitive and, as he later put it, “not ready for prime time.” Eisner was known for having high artistic standards at a time when most people were publishing any kind of junk. He later laughed about this “big mistake” – but he did fine financially. In their first year in business Eisner & Iger netted over $10,000 (over $161,000 in 2014 dollars).

Siegel and Shuster found Max Gaines who took their work to National Publishing, Harry Donenfield’s pulp operation. Donenfield was known as a pornographer and had ties to the mob. His trucks were just as likely to be carrying porn or booze as pulp magazines. In 1937 the Feds cracked-down on the mafia and Donenfield was looking for a safer way to make money. He went into comic books, purchasing Detective Comics from Major Nicholson, thus National would later become “DC.” He bought Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, always stamping “For all rights and title” on the check so that when the talent endorsed their checks they also signed away their intellectual properties. Superman in Action Comics #1 (1938) was the super blockbuster of the Golden Age. It was to comics what Star Wars was to the movies, and in the middle of the Depression, comic book publishers (not necessarily the talent) were soon making money hand over fist.

Eisner & Iger had been paying freelance artists, but Eisner soon convinced his partner that they needed to hire a house staff of artists and writers and put them all in one, big room. Thus he created the studio system whereby a writer scripts a comic, hands it off to a penciler, who hands it off to an inker, then a letter, and finally a colorist. Eisner had to fight Iger to get the talent on salary. Iger was worried about production speed. Comics was a deadline intensive business, so the $5/page wage kept artists focused on getting as much done as possible… but at the expense of quality. By putting his staff on salary, Eisner was able to focus them on quality, while the assembly line structure of his studio allowed him to meet every deadline. Eisner would walk up and down the isles of his bullpen telling artists to try this and redraw that. In Eisner/Miller (2005) he said, “I ran my shop very much like a class, like running a school.” Eisner was only 22 years old and directing some illustrators (like Alex Blum) who were much older and more experienced. But he had an Orson Welles-like talent, and he was the only one who believed in comics as an art form. “Nobody had a passion,” he said in Eisner/Miller. “I was the only guy who believed that this was a lifetime career. The rest… dreamed of going to Madison Avenue and becoming illustrators… for the Saturday Evening Post and things like that.” Many of the greatest artists of the Golden Age came out of Eisner’s studio: Jack Cole, Lou Fine, Bob Kane, and Jack Kirby among others. Siegel and Shuster may have created the opportunity, but Will Eisner created the Golden Age.

Eisner introduces some of these characters in The Dreamer, and he recounts how he got involved in National’s lawsuit against Victor Fox for violating their IP by producing Wonder-man, an obvious Superman knock-off.

At Eisner & Iger, Eisner became “very rich” before he was 22, recalling that in Depression-era 1939 alone he pocketed $25,000 (that’s over $400,000 in 2014 dollars). Then he does something surprising in 1940 (moved to ‘39 in The Dreamer to dramatically coincide with the start of the war). He sells his half of Eisner& Iger cheap to Jerry Iger and goes into business with “Busy” Arnold producing a comic book insert that would go inside the Sunday newspapers. It was a big gamble, but it offered him two things he wanted: (1) as a newspaper comic book he could write for adults as well as children, and he was itching to do more sophisticated stories about crime, sex, corruption, poverty, and alcoholism. (2) He made sure that he owned everything he produced. At a time when most creators (like Siegel, Shuster, Fine, Kirby, and Kane) were just looking for a paycheck and knew nothing of IP rights, this was extremely shrewd on Eisner’s part. Thus he created The Spirit – the same year 25 year-old Orson Welles was making Citizen Kane. Eisner alone wrote and drew The Spirit until 1942 when he was drafted… and there we return To the Heart of the Storm.

Will Eisner 3

The most heartbreaking moment in Storm comes when Willie, now 22 and a successful cartoonist and entrepreneur (having achieved what his father only dreamed about) runs into his old friend Buck whom he hasn’t seen since high school. A storm comes up, and they take shelter in a diner. They start reminiscing about the good old days… until Buck, a German-American, starts to casually drop in some anti-Semitic comments, apparently having forgotten that his old friend was Jewish. Without a word, Willie, stunned and heartbroken, just gets up and walks out into the storm.

The climax follows: Willie’s partner (presumably “Busy” Arnold, although he isn’t named) offers to use his connections to help Willie avoid the draft. They are making money hand over fist with Willie’s newspaper comic (i.e. The Spirit) and the syndicate doesn’t want to lose that. Willie rejects his offer. “I’m going in,” he declares.

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